HAVANA – HAVANA (AP) — Nearly every eligible Cuban cast ballots in a vote the communist government proclaims is proof of the island's democracy. But if headlines were made, it was by six elderly women standing under an ancient ficus tree, enduring seven hours of insults and obscenities for demanding political prisoners be freed.
Cuba complains the foreign media makes way too much of a small, divided dissident movement that has little sway with ordinary people. But the government has helped draw attention to the women — known as the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White — by choosing, with no explanation, to start blocking their small weekly protests after seven years of tolerating them.
Wayne Smith, a former top American diplomat in Havana, said the unwanted attention began when the government decided to take a hard line.
"The Damas have been marching for a long time and it hasn't raised any problems" for the government, said Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy who has long argued that the U.S. should lift its 48-year trade embargo on Cuba. "Suddenly, when the Cubans say, 'You can't march,' then there's a story. Then the press comes out."
Indeed, after years of obscurity, the women have become a cause celebre among Cuban-American exiles in the United States. The move to quash their protests has many in Washington wondering if Havana is trying to scuttle relations that seemed on the mend just months ago.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this month that Fidel and Raul Castro could be creating a crisis because they don't want America to drop the embargo, which she said gives them a convenient excuse for their revolution's failures.
Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's parliament, scoffed at the notion on Sunday.
"Mrs. Clinton is a very intelligent woman and I don't want to be rude with her," Alarcon said. "If she really believes the continuation of the embargo is in the benefit of our government, it's very simple for her to ask Congress to lift the embargo."
Alarcon, the highest ranking Cuban official to respond to Clinton, made his comments as he voted in nationwide municipal elections that the government says are the most democratic in the world.
There are secret ballots in which Cubans can choose between more than one candidate, and preliminary results announced Monday showed that nearly 95 percent of eligible voters took part. The government says the vote contradicts the Washington-driven image of Cuba as a single-party totalitarian state.
"These elections reaffirm that our people will never surrender and will never sell out," said a headline in the state-weekly newspaper Trabajadores, or Workers, on Monday.
But few outside Cuba took notice of the vote. There was no debate on policy and the results were never in doubt. While candidates did not have to be members of the Communist Party, most were in good standing with authorities and the outcome means little politically.
Even Fidel Castro made no comment on the election in a lengthy essay published shortly after the polls closed that railed against American military designs. The 83-year-old, who stepped down as president in 2008, voted in abstentia and did not appear publicly.
For the media, the real drama was elsewhere, in a shady park in an upscale neighborhood of Havana, where the Ladies in White stood without food or bathroom breaks through hour after hour of earsplitting harassment.
The group has demonstrated every Sunday since their husbands and sons were arrested in a March 2003 crackdown. Their marches, down a leafy boulevard called Quinta Avenida, used to draw little coverage and only a smattering of curious onlookers. State security kept watch from afar but rarely intervened. Usually, fewer than 10 protesters have shown up.
But the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February shined a new spotlight on Cuba's human rights record. The women marched for seven days in a row in different parts of the city in March. Cameras were there to show them roughly bundled onto a bus at one of the events.
That prompted sympathy protests led by Cuban-American pop icon Gloria Estefan in Miami and actor Andy Garcia in Los Angeles. Cuban officials bristled, denouncing what they saw as a global campaign to discredit the revolution. On April 11, officials informed the women the protests would no longer be tolerated.
That afternoon, dozens of pro-government counter-protesters were waiting outside Santa Rita de Casia Church, where the Damas celebrate Mass. When the women tried to march, security officials put them on a bus and took them home.
Similar conflicts have been repeated the next two weekends — with counter-protesters hurling abuse at the women for hours before they were put onto a bus. The counter-protests are not violent, though they are intimidating.
On Sunday — the day of the municipal vote — the six Damas who turned up moved to the shade of a huge ficus tree, its trunk as large as a car and with vines hanging from its branches taking root in the soil below. They stood there for seven hours as government supporters shuttled in and out in shifts to shout at them.
This time, scores of foreign journalists were there to watch, even if Cubans who happened past paid little attention, some playing baseball, oblivious to the disturbance nearby.
Juana Gomez, who joined the Damas in sympathy but is not a relative of one of the original 2003 political prisoners, told The Associated Press the women would continue to march "come what may."
She said she thinks authorities picked a confrontation with the Damas to sabotage any chance for improved relations with the United States.
"Better relations aren't at all convenient for them," she said. "What they want is to be in the same fight as they've been in for 50 years."